Update: 2 workers killed as massive fire destroys SouthPark apartment building under construction
Emergency crews worked for hours Thursday morning to extinguish a five-alarm fire at a construction site in south Charlotte that left an apartment building under construction totally destroyed.
The blaze broke out a little after 9 a.m. at a construction site on the 7700 block of Liberty Row Drive, across the street from SouthPark Mall. One person was taken to the hospital and is expected to recover, paramedics said.
But Charlotte Fire Department Chief Reginald Johnson said Friday evening that the remains of two workers had been found in the smoldering wreckage. Johnson said their bodies had been sent to the medical examiner's office for identification. Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles identified one as Demonte Sherill, a father of four. The second victim was not immediately identified.
"His family said he was a hard worker, a loving father and a family man," said Lyles. "We grieve with you, especially with Mr. Sherill's children."
Johnson said the initial investigation shows the fire started in a spray foam insulation truck, and appears to be accidental. The investigation is ongoing.
The fire swept through the building in minutes, sending workers running. Fifteen workers were rescued, and two companies of firefighters had to transmit "maydays" to be rescued themselves.
"That's how fast-moving this fire was," he said. "High heat conditions well over 2,000 degrees, and as the construction site is open, a lot of wood is exposed, the fire moved very rapidly."
Other fires sparked by embers sprang up nearby but were extinguished.
STRUCTURE FIRE UPDATE: 7700 block Liberty Row Dr. 4th Alarm. pic.twitter.com/xy8iGO4Jjj— Charlotte Fire Dept (@CharlotteFD) May 18, 2023
Witnesses and social media video described spectacularly high flames, leaping 50 feet in the air. The fire was mostly extinguished as of noon, though firefighters were still spraying hot spots. The area was choked with smoke. There was ash all over the ground, and traffic was stopped on many surrounding streets.
Johnson said the mostly wooden-frame apartment building caught fire quickly.
"There’s no drywall in these buildings so there is nothing to prevent fire spread," he said.
He also said Thursday's breezy weather could have also made the fire worse.
"And that could expand the fire much quicker than you can see on the outside than inside," Johnson said. "And when you start to see the amount of black smoke coming out of that building - Our firefighters will tell you that black smoke is fuel."
Walter Morris said his nephew was in a construction crane above the site and could not get down initially because the flames were so high. His nephew was eventually able to climb to safety.
"The heat got to him, you know, a couple of times he was calling saying how hot it was, his eyes were red," said Morris. "When he walked down, he climbed down and he walked to the stretcher."
Berta Hernandez is a construction worker. Speaking outside the smoking building, the fire quickly engulfed the site even as workers fled.
"We were working. The fire was on the second floor. We were on the sixth floor and didn’t realize what was happening below. We left when we saw people running outside and you could already see the cloud of smoke," she said.
While firefighters battled a massive blaze below, a harrowing scene unfolded above as a construction worker was trapped atop a crane.— WSOCTV (@wsoctv) May 18, 2023
What happened next -> https://t.co/6esz37Y7Mz pic.twitter.com/jvMvhRGqRu
He was taken to the hospital, Morris said, where he remained Thursday afternoon. But he was OK.
WFAE reporters Nick De La Canal, Lisa Worf and Ely Portillo contributed.